ohn the Evangelist is crystal clear about his purpose in telling the story of the Apostle Thomas’ first encounter with the Risen Christ. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” refers to you, to me, and to John’s audience. It is likely that the Gospel of John circulated in its present form somewhere between the years 90 and 120. There is some evidence and some opinion that it is based on much older material, but in all likelihood neither John nor any of the canonical gospels was written until 40-50 years after Jesus. By that time, hosts of people had come into the Christian fold, none of whom had had direct contact with Jesus of Nazareth. By the decade of the 60’s, it is likely that most if not all of the original band of disciples had been martyred or had otherwise died. Believing without seeing was clearly an existential issue, not a moral or theological one in the main. How can one stake one’s life on a man who died a criminal’s death and whose supposed resurrection from the dead was quite possibly, to quote the words of Luke, “an idle tale,” that couldn’t reasonably be believed? During the decades in which the gospels were most likely written there were several waves of horrible persecutions. So “staking one’s life” literally was not a matter of quietly joining a community dedicated to personal growth and moral improvement but rather identifying with a very vulnerable movement whose members daily risked being murdered atrociously.
The adjective that has stuck with Thomas is “doubting.” “Doubting Thomas” has long carried the implication that somehow Thomas ought to have believed without doubting. Personally I believe that to be utter rubbish. Not because we mustn’t of necessity get past the need for physically observing the Risen Jesus before we can believe in him, but because doubt is not an enemy of faith but a necessary component of faith. If we never doubt, question, probe, examine, test the faith that we have as little children, we can never grow up and own that faith as mature adults. In fact, we run the terrible risk of never realizing some of Jesus’ greatest challenges if we allow ourselves to remain stuck at the first stage of faith development. Faith in Jesus is very much a relationship, and like all relationships if it is to grow and last, it must shed the illusion that it can do so without changing over time. It should and it must, or else it will atrophy, wither, and become utterly useless.
But there is another outcome of this story of so-called “Doubting Thomas” that has been disastrous for the Church. And that is a great misunderstanding of what belief is in the first place. In our world, belief generally means to give assent to, to accept something as factually true. Do you believe what you read? If you do, that means that you accept as factual and provable what you read. Do you believe that 2 + 2 = 4? If you do, it means that you not only trust the information that someone taught you years ago that two and two did make four, but you have experienced that mathematical equation every day of your life. Do you believe what you hear on a given news outlet or on an internet site? Ah, there’s a different question. If you do, you are quite likely believing that source on the basis of someone else’s authority, or on the basis of your own philosophy or opinions, not things that are easily verifiable.
So the question that we need urgently to ask is what does belief mean. At the risk of getting a bit teachy here, I invite you to look carefully at some words used in the telling of this story. First, the word that John uses to mean “belief” or “to have faith” or with the addition of one letter “not to believe” or “to be faithless” is a word [πιστευω] that comes from an old root from which we get words like abide, awaiting, persuading, confiding, trusting. It is the same root out of which grow words like faith, fiancé, and confident. That tells us a good deal about belief. Almost nothing in those words has much to do with giving intellectual assent to a proposition in our heads, our minds. But almost every one of them indicates an action that has to do with an attraction of one person in relation to another. Take fiancé, for example. The minute that word is said in English we immediately know that we are talking about a relationship, indeed a relationship we assume to be loving. We also know that it suggests a future in which two persons are going to be married and thus share a life. Keep that in mind as we look at another text.
In a few minutes we are corporately going to use the words “We believe” as we state the words of the Nicene Creed. The English word “believe” comes from another old root from which spring words in various languages meaning caring, desiring, loving. From the same root come words meaning things like pleasing, pleasant, and pleasure. See how far that is from a notion that in saying the Creed we are reciting a string of things that we simply agree are factually true, historically accurate? It is more a matter of saying we are committing ourselves to a life characterized by desiring, loving, giving and receiving pleasure. Now that might suggest a quite different experience when you’re saying the Creed besides running down a checklist of impossible things that somebody said you ought to think are true. Try thinking of the Creed as the marriage vows between you and your Creator-Lover!
And speaking of “creed,” let’s take a look at that word also. In Latin the verb for “I believe is credo. Let’s take a look at that for a moment. Its ancient root is kerd, from which we get in lots of languages words like “heart, cardiac, cordial, credence, credit.” It also produced words that point to the idea of putting trust in someone or something.
Now we are ready to return to the story of Thomas with a little more clarity about what it and in the larger scheme of things the Gospel of John means by “believing.” Believing is giving one’s heart to someone, being or becoming engaged and married to someone, trusting wholeheartedly in someone. And that someone is one with whom one has a relationship of love and pleasure. That, I think you’ll agree, is a far cry from thinking in the abstract that something is true. Granted, truth is something we expect in a love relationship—truth, not lies, not pretense or sleight of hand. Truth, like trust, is an essential component of love among beings, without which no viable community can exist, let alone function.
When Jesus says to Thomas, “Be no longer unbelieving, but believing,” he is saying in effect, “Put your trust in me. Place your confidence in me. Give me your heart, Thomas.”
Then—then—how powerful an image becomes of Jesus’ invitation to Thomas: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and thrust it into my side.” Interestingly, the text does not say whether Thomas actually does these things, and you can imagine it either way. But the invitation of Jesus is clear: Touch me; don’t hang back. I invite you to be in a love relationship with me that exceeds even all that we have experienced in the old life: my pain, my death, my resurrection, my scars. Be one with me.”
|"Place your hand here in my side..."|
I asserted a few minutes ago that the common understanding of the story of Thomas with the message that doubt is dangerously opposed to faith has been disastrous for the Church. I now assert even more strongly that the message to become one with Jesus is for human beings truly to be saved: saved from despair, saved for the healing not only of ourselves but of the world. It all fits together: without death there is no resurrection, without resurrection life has nowhere to go but to death. The risen Lord comes among his followers who, far from understanding what is happening, hear him saying, “Peace to you.” Shalom, salvation, wholeness, healing, sanity, wellness, balance, health, the mending of brokenness, the awakening of bodily pleasure, the fulfillment of hope.
It is a gift. We can accept it or turn it down. But the Risen Lord has amply demonstrated that he won’t go away, except to come among us again and again. And each time he comes, the invitation is renewed, “Come unto me. Put your finger here. Feel my wounds, see my scars, thrust your hand into my body. Unite with me. I want to live in you. And I want you to be a part of me.”
|"... that we may evermore dwell in him and he in us."|
A sermon for The Second Sunday of Easter, based on John 20:19-31.
photo at left: Still Life with Bread and Wine, Abraham Guntz, Romania
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2019